Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:00 PM
Dan Wheat/Capital Press
Mike Dick, Van Doren engineer, with the Littau-Van Doren apple harvester he helped design. The machine was displayed at the annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association in Yakima, Wash., in December.
Bryan: 'Forget about the productivity, you just got 10 percent better on grading'
By DAN WHEAT
Automated apple harvesters may be more prevalent in Pacific Northwest apple orchards this fall as two of the three companies developing them are close to beginning commercial production.
All they need are orders.
Picker Technologies in Bellevue, Wash., has designed a machine that will be manufactured and sold by Oxbo International Corp., Byron, N.Y., in the U.S. and Canada.
Picker Technologies has five $10,000 refundable deposits for five machines and is looking for 45 more before committing to manufacturing, said Vince Bryan III, the company's CEO.
The deposits are from a Northwest apple grower but the company is getting inquiries from South Africa, where a picker strike is threatening the start of apple harvest, Bryan said.
"We're not prepared to ship anything there this year, but we will make our reservation agreement available there," he said.
Once he has enough deposits he will firm up pricing options, commitments to purchase and begin production, he said.
Littau Harvester in Stayton, Ore., and Van Doren Sales in East Wenatchee, Wash., built six of their apple harvesters last year and are trying to determine the level of interest to build more, said Norm Johnson, president of Littau.
Four of the machines were used in harvest and all six will be used for pruning this winter and spring, he said. Littau rents machines for $50,000 for nine months with 80 percent of that credited toward a $200,000 purchase if a customer wants to buy. Most customers using Littau berry harvesters prefer to rent, Johnson said.
Costs of buying or renting become irrelevant compared with the savings, he said. The apple harvester has filled 60 to 80 bins in eight hours, which is a 30 percent savings in labor compared to picking with ladders, he said. Field sorting on the machine saves another 15 percent of harvest cost, he said.
Van Doren builds the bin filler and Littau builds the rest. Auvil Fruit Co., Orondo, Wash., is the main customer.
The third developer of an automated apple harvester is DBR Conveyor Concepts in Conklin, Mich. Owner Phil Brown hoped to begin commercial production this year, but he said he needs another year of refining and testing to reduce apple bruising and increase harvest production. He experiments with one machine in Michigan and Pennsylvania and sold another to Washington State University for experimental use. Brown plans to sell his machines for about $100,000.
All of the machines use human pickers on the ground and riding on the machines to pick apples and place them in transport tubes or conveyor belts that carry the fruit to bins. Empty bins spaced in rows in advance are picked up by the machines, filled and lowered back to the ground for hauling by tractors.
The DBR machine does no field sorting. The Littau-Van Doren machine uses two people to sort culls.
The Picker Technologies machine uses an optical scanner to sort good fruit and culls into separate bins and records data of fruit size and volume that can be downloaded to the packing shed. That data gives marketers an early, accurate read of fruit size, quality and volume.
"Forget about the productivity, you just got 10 percent better on grading," Bryan said. "The true value of savings is not yet fully understood, but if you don't scan you are literally leaving dollars in the field.
"The reality of having a robotic arm that can be anywhere near as fast as a person in identifying and picking fruit is not real today," he said. "It probably will happen in the next 20 years."